The trouble with audiobooks (for me)


Listening (Courtesy: OCAL on

Once was audiobooks were used primarily by visually impaired people and travellers, but with the rapidly increasing miniaturisation of audioplayers, audiobooks are now being “read” by people going on walks, working out in the gym, doing housework, sitting on public transport, or even working at their computers. In other words, people listen to audiobooks pretty well anywhere that they can. I am not, however, one of them. In fact, I can count on one hand (excluding snippets heard over the years on radio) the number of audiobooks I have “read” (or is that listened to?). Do you “read” an audiobook? How differently do you experience a book when you listen to it versus read it?

For me, the experience is so different that when I am in a listening situation I prefer radio and music to books. And here is why (but please, this is a purely personal thing – it is about how I like to enjoy books and is in no way intended to be prescriptive about how everyone should enjoy books):

  • I like to see the words – know how they are spelt and so on – partly, but not only, because this can be critical to my understanding (particularly with authors who engage in wordplay).
  • I like to stop and think as I read – ponder about a phrase or an idea, and even flip a few pages back sometimes to check a link that I think the author is making.
  • I like to make notes as I go and, if I own the book, I do this in the book – making notes helps me remember what I’m reading, and helps me write a blog or prepare notes for later discussion.
  • I don’t want to miss visual clues – some authors, and particularly post-modern ones, use visual clues and games to add to their text, but there are other more subtle visuals in “normal” books that you miss in an audio version.
  • I don’t particularly like it when a reader acts out the voices in a book – it distracts me from my own understanding of the text. The reader for the audiobook of Ruth Park’s Swords and crowns and rings (link here is to ANZLitLovers review), for example, irritated me intensely with her voices and dramatisation, though as she wore on I got used to her because it is a great story!
  • I like the physicality of the book (though I can probably relinquish this in the same way that I am pretty happily converting from CDs to iTunes for my music).

All this said, I have enjoyed a couple of audiobooks. The outstanding one was Roald Dahl reading his own Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Authors readings their own works can be a hit-and-miss affair, but Roald Dahl was perfect. I heard snippets of Barack Obama reading his Dreams from my father on the radio and thought he also read his own work beautifully. On another tack, I enjoyed hearing Mary Durack’s memoir Kings in grass castles when we did a long long family trip several years ago.

Audiobooks clearly have their place. They work best for me when they are memoirs or simple plot-driven books rather than literary fiction, and so on the next very long trip we do I’ll probably seek out some memoirs. I also know that I will be very glad of their existence when (or, hopefully, if) my sight fails me. But, otherwise, I will be sticking to reading rather than listening…and this means that the technology that is likely to attract me is the eBook. I can see myself trying them in the not too distant future.

19 thoughts on “The trouble with audiobooks (for me)

  1. All true, Sue, and I dread the day when my eyesight is gone and I have to rely on audiobooks, but I still find them infinitely preferable to radio en route to work in the morning. I used to really enjoy ABC Radio National Breakfast but Fran Kelly is such an airhead she has ruined my mornings with her slavering over celebrities, her awful taste in music and her preoccupation with sport.
    ABC FM is nice, but I find myself thinking too much about what has to be done at work if I listen to classical music. A carefully chosen audio book is just enough to keep me alert without distracting me from the road. Mind you, on wet days, I turn everything off so that I can concentrate. What is it about people with 4WDs that they feel they have to hurtle across wet roads with no regard for speed limits, just because they can? Do they not know that something with the weight of a small truck can kill drivers in those little micro cars? Coming home the other night in a rainstorm, I was very glad I have some solid steel around me and 6 airbags in my Mazda 6!

  2. Those 4WDs are really scary aren’t they – and most drivers of them never go off road. Must admit I don’t dislike Fran Kelly that much – I didn’t like her when she took over a few years ago and I do find her delivery a bit breathless, but the half hour I listen to (from 8-8.30am while I do my yoga!) is useful enough for keeping me up to date. I like her CD of the week session on Monday – introduces me to a range of contemporary music across a variety of genres. I don’t like all that I hear but I find a lot of it interesting to hear about. As for radio while driving, these days of course I’m usually driving later in the day – often during Bush Telegraph in the morning or Lucky Oceans’ program in the early afternoon and I usually enjoy those. Mostly when we drive for longer distances I plug my iPod in and listen to music of our choice.

  3. I like to see the words as well, so don’t really listen to audiobooks unless it is poetry or a play and thus arguably written to be read aloud. I’ve tried, but I find a novel I listen to goes in one ear and out the other!

    • Yes, I was going to comment on the intention bit …. stories were of course an oral tradition, but novels are a written one. I’m a bit of the “in one ear and out the other” crew too. Also. if you nod off over a book it’s easy to find your place. Much more tedious to rewind audio to find your place. My visually impaired elderly ma-in-law just can’t manage it and misses huge chunks of stories or just puts the CD in again from the start – and probably nods off at the same place again – LOL! A memoir for a long drive though can be enjoyable I’ve found… Poetry and drama too are pretty good. In fact, poetry is often better understood when read isn’t it?

  4. Re. or Lucky Oceans’ program

    One of my favourite moments, at my first Womad, was the moment when Lucky Oceans stepped onto the stage and the crowd treated him like a celebrity. He had to stand there with his hand in the air for a while before they quieted down enough for him to speak.

    • Good one! I saw him a few years ago at the National Folk Festival. He didn’t quite get the same response but it was wonderful seeing him. I plan to get to Womad one day. Do you go regularly? A few of my friends have been but I haven’t quite made it yet.

  5. I’ve been going for the past few years. It’s a long trip, but Womad is the one place in Australia where you can see musicians like that all together in a concentrated mass, so I go. Salif Keita live on stage was just outstanding. And this year there were masses of people roaring around in daisychain formation in front of a group of polyphonic French singers while the sedate audience members held their cameras between their ankles, hoping that no one would dance on them.

    • Oh that sounds great. The NFF inteprets “folk” very widely and so there’s quite a bit of World Music, though I don’t know how many artists perform at both. Probably not many. I guess though you’ve seen people like Zulya?

      • I’ve seen people like Zulya, but not Zulya herself … you know what, I’ve just remembered that we had that World Music Expo in town ten days ago and I completely forgot about it. She was performing there. Bloody hell.

  6. You just can’t get to everything can you? Anyhow, I would certainly recommend seeing her one day. She’s very impressive. I have 2 of her early CDs and love them. Where’s “town” for you. Melbourne? I’m in the nation’s capital!

  7. Melbourne, sorry. I could have got to it if I’d remembered it. That’s why I’m kicking myself. The only consolation is that I’ve saved fifteen dollars. So she’s good live? I’ll remember that. I reviewed one of her albums years ago for an online magazine – The Waltz of Emptiness (it took me a moment to remember the name). Nice voice – liquid, but very strong, very ductile.

  8. Yes, I think she’s good live – natural, warm but not one of those highly chatty ones. I have her first two: Journey of voice, and Aloukie. I find her voice haunting – but strong too as you say, and with a gorgeous warm tone. BTW Tried to comment on your blog last night but it didn’t like my whisperinggums sign on so had to give up. Do you require extra info on your comments??

  9. Not as far as I know. I’ve just tried signing in with my wordpress name and it tells me ‘Your OpenID credentials were not verified’ or something like that. Is this the same message you were getting? I have no idea why it’s doing that. Thanks for trying nonetheless.

    • Yes, that’s the message I’ve got…I’ve got into other blogs with my wordpress name and it’s worked. I did set up a Blogger blog for my bookgroup but I’m less familiar with how it works. My group though keen on the idea, didn’t engage a lot and so I haven’t explored it a lot. I know Lisa, a few months ago managed to comment on it with her Worpress name…Curious.

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